Pastoral Ministry has no “Career Path”

In James Strock’s excellent book Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership, he recounts TR (as he was known then and now) as saying that a person has to be careful about ambition. Early in his political career. As a twenty-three-year-old alderman, TR sys that he began to think about how far he could go politically and such thoughts distracted him to the point he became “speedily useless to the public.” Such ambition, he said, would kill the very traits that make a person a possibility for future office. TR decided from then on that he would treat every office he held as his last so that he could serve with a sense of “disinterestedness” that would allow him to work “unreservedly” at the job before him.

This lesson is one that many of my fellow pastors would do well to learn and those of us who have learned it would do well to remember it. Pastoral ministry is not a career path. Many have made it so, but that doesn’t mean that it is supposed to be that way. The Gospel ministry is a calling, a life.

Too many pastors fail to further the kingdom as they could (and ought) because they are so busy thinking about the next step that they can’t focus on what they are supposed to do where they are.

TR said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  Strock has that quote as an epigraph at the beginning of this chapter along with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”

The figure I was given in seminary is 3-5 years. That’s how long the average pastor stays at a church. (35-40% of pastors leave the ministry after five years, but that’s another topic for another post.)

The problem with this 3-5 year figure is that many people who study ministry effectiveness (like Aubrey Malphurs) say that it takes at least 6 years (6-8 years is the figure he gives) to become the pastor, that is, until people are willing to trust you enough to follow your leadership. This means it will be 6-8 years before you will be able to effect any lasting and significant change that will affect the culture and forward direction of your church.

I’ve known too many aspiring pastors who wanted to serve 3-5 years in a smaller church (as assistant pastor or solo pastor) while getting their M.Div., then move to a larger church as an associate pastor and once they get their D.Min. they think they can move to a larger church, maybe even a megachurch. In all their plans there is no concern for the congregations they will serve during that time and it is almost as if they are simply using those congregations as stepping stones to achieve their own aspirations with little regard for how they will serve. 

If you’re in that window between 3-6 years and you want to leave because things are tough I can say with honesty that I’ve been there and I know it’s not easy. Most of the time it gets better. Walk with your Savior and be the shepherd he has called you to be no matter how difficult remembering that he knows what you do for his glory.

If you’re in that window and another offer has come that for whatever reasons seems to fit better, I say use your sanctified judgment in deciding whether that is for you or not. When making your decision be sure to look at more than how people treat you, how much money you make, etc.

If you’re in that window and you’re wanting to leave just because you’re itching to step into a bigger church, or what you perceive to be a better church, I say, learn contentment. The grass isn’t necessarily going to be greener once the honeymoon is over at your new church.

To every pastor I say, use what God has given you in the congregation where he has placed you, to serve the people God has placed in your care. If you do this, I can guarantee your Lord will take care of the rest. Matthew 6:33 applies here as well.

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
This entry was posted in Church Ministry, Pastoral Ministry and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Pastoral Ministry has no “Career Path”

  1. tlangejr says:

    Good thoughts as always. What about those of us who are trying to get in to the pastorate and no one (not even the small churches ) will give us a chance – it comes down to the experience issue – you can’t get any experience unless someone will give you a chance but then no one is willing to take the risk. I interviewed with one church and they were desperate and almost begging to take the pastorate sight unseen. This along with the fact they could not articulate simple theological positions of the church along with allowing a divorced man to serve on the pulpit committee was enough for me to dis continue the process. Unfortunately, there have been no interviews or opportunities since even though my current church had an opening on their staff and filled it again with someone from outside.

    • I actually thought about you when I wrote this (and others in your situation). Someone we both know is going through a similar thing after having been downsized from his church. I feel for yall, especially you since I know how long this has gone on for you.

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